Friends don’t let friends read Shakespeare without company.
Until now, Shakespeare has never been presented to me as anything but a slog through archaic language that I would need lots of help and outside sources to understand. This was the approach I had in high school English classes, and unsurprisingly, I came to hate Shakespeare.
Up until this semester at my current university, I’d avoided the Bard in all of my English-major-specific classes. Does the phrase, “text criticism theory” get you all excited? No, me neither. At least, it didn’t until I really dug into the class. I was not expecting a professor who peppers his classes with tongue-in-cheek jokes and who facilitates such lively discussions that even the driest of essays seem to jump off the page. On the first day of class, our professor explained that studying literature is part of an ongoing conversation, a conversation in which wrong answers have great value.
At first, I was less than thrilled with this approach. There’s a reason I’m pursuing this English degree: I’m good at reading and writing. Why, then, should I be expected to come to class with wrong answers? Why should I highlight the things I don’t understand rather than capitalizing on the things I do? Surely my classmates would all think–no, they would know–that I am an absolute fool, that I cannot comprehend Shakespeare and all of the generations of scholars who have quibbled over the nuances of his writing for decades. Surely all of my classmates had come out of the womb with The Tempest in hand, and by kindergarten, they had at least a rudimentary understanding of iambic pentameter, while I’d been busy eating paste.
Despite how silly this all seems, it’s still so easy for me to fall into this kind of perfectionistic thinking. Not only is this disruptive in many areas of life, it is not conducive to learning. For this particular class, we are required to bring in questions we have about the assigned readings, and these make up the majority of the class discussions. One day, the ice was broken while I stood with a cluster of other students, waiting for our professor. “I don’t know if I was the only one, but that article made zero sense to me,” one girl spoke up.
The others in the group nodded and laughed. “Me too,” “Same here,” several of them said. When class began and we expressed this sentiment to our professor, he was thrilled. We spent most of that class debating the jargon of one particular footnote and then ran out of time. I left class with more questions than I’d had at the beginning, but I was confident that there would be plenty of opportunities to ask them later.
I bring this up to illustrate the importance of community. Trying to get through Shakespeare in high school, with no help (maybe except for Sparknotes’ No Fear Shakespeare) was a terrible experience that left me with a grudge against one of history’s greatest writers. But when I embarked on the journey with classmates and friends in an environment where questions were allowed to be asked, and “I don’t know,” was a valid answer, I thrived.
I used to have a sponsor who said I was trying to fill “a God-sized hole in my soul.” This was a pretty tall order, and I knew what wouldn’t fill that hole: various substances, self-help books, self-injury, destructive relationships. It took me a while to realize, but neither finding God, nor recovering from mental illness is akin to filling a hole. When you fill a hole, there’s a finite and fillable emptiness: you throw some dirt on it and you’re good to go. Dirt can’t spontaneously decide it won’t fill a hole, it won’t run off to fill something else, and it won’t try to convince you that you’ve undertaken a pointless task.
As Bukowski puts it, that empty space, the hole in one’s soul, the void, can never truly be filled, no matter how happy one’s life may be. Sometimes the void feels all-consuming to me, that if I can’t find something to fill it immediately that I will never be okay. It’s this yawning, massive chasm that can send me spiraling into self-destructive behavior. Other times, during those “greatest times,” which Bukowski refers to, the void is not as prominent, but it’s still there.
That’s the thing about being human, though: experiences, events, and emotions are never just one thing. As children, we learn to categorize things in terms of one or the other. Chocolate is yummy and peas are yucky; This toy is fun and that one is boring; I like cats and I don’t like dogs. As I’ve grown up I’ve realized the all-or-nothing dichotomies of my childhood don’t hold up to the real world. All of this is to say, I can be happy while simultaneously keeping space for the void. I can wish someone well without wanting to have them back in my life. I can acknowledge that I am still dealing with very real self-harm urges, and then I can choose to do something else.
Self-harm does nothing but widen the void. It guarantees me an “emotional hangover,” the several days of berating myself for being stupid enough to fall for that old lie that self-harming will make me feel better. I know this, and I can expound on all of the reasons not to harm myself, I can list all of the alternative activities, and I can predict exactly how much worse I will feel after the two minutes of calm that self-harm brings have passed. Past years have shown how vehemently I will disregard all of that which I just mentioned. I would go to battle with any therapist who challenged me on those points until I was just insisting, “I don’t care! I don’t care! I don’t care!” I could not be reasoned with and I accepted those consequences.
Now, though, it is getting harder and harder to make room for self-harm as the life I want to live becomes more and more of my reality. Perhaps it is strange to think of ceasing self-harm as a “sacrifice,” but that’s how it feels. Every coping skill, even the really crappy and dysfunctional ones like self-harm, serves a purpose. I line I frequently find repeating in my writing is, “It hurts until it stops.” Another way of explaining what I mean by this is that when the pain becomes great enough, I will change.
I will be the first to denounce the “tortured artist” archetype. Yes, it was cute and quirky in high school, and molding my identity around a sort of troubled creativity at that time was a survival tactic. However, I definitely don’t think that emotional turmoil is necessary for creativity. There is a stereotype that creative people must suffer for their art. That’s bullshit. It’s easy to write about self-loathing and sadness. Try to write a poem about the sun without a cliche in it. Try to write a poem about someone you love dearly without making it into a Hallmark card. Perhaps I am biased, as I had a head start on the self-loathing prose and poetry since I began writing right around the time I also began experiencing mental illness. But I’ve heard many of my fellow creative writers echo the same sentiment: sadness is an easy subject, while joy is harder to capture.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the purpose of continuing this blog. One of my classes this semester is a seminar on literature relating to mental health, taught by my favorite professor. One of the numerous textbooks for the class is an anthology called Show Me All Your Scars, and it’s pretty terrible. The anthology is a collection of personal accounts of people affected by mental illness, either who have experienced it firsthand or been close with someone who has. One of the stories in particular stood out as especially awful to me as it described a mother’s struggle to accept that her son had autism. The essay was published in the mid-90’s, when there was not as much awareness about autism as there is now. The mother who wrote the article described her desire to jump off of a 15th floor balcony, her son in her arms, among other things. I was shocked by the harsh and cruel language used, shocked at how angry the narrator seemed, and when I finished the essay, I thought that the author probably should have kept a lot of this to herself.
We discussed this particular piece in class today, and many of my classmates echoed my opinion, that some things are better left unsaid. I’ve been pretty confused throughout this entire anthology about why my professor chose to include this book at all. But when the professor asked, “How do you think someone would feel if they read this and were also having these thoughts?” it clicked for me. The essay’s purpose is not to demonize people who have autism. The purpose is to bring to light a point of view that may be unconventional or isolating. For the mother in this essay, this was her way of saying, “Yes, things were awful for a moment there, but I learned to cope, and I’m still coping and learning.”
The purpose of this blog is similar. I rarely seek to give advice here; I am definitely not qualified to tell anyone (except maybe my cat) what to do, nor do I particularly want to. So then, the question became: why do I put this here? Is this my cry for attention and validation? Am I putting myself up on a pedestal, claiming to speak for everyone with mental illness?
I certainly hope not. What I intend to do here is celebrate the fact that recovery is possible, perhaps not in the sense that all symptoms will disappear, but in the sense that people with mental illness can live successful, productive, and happy lives–no matter how one chooses to define (or substitute) those ideas.
I also want to be real here. One thing that didn’t sit well with me about Show Me All Your Scars was that many of the essays portrayed mental illness in a pretty negative light: a childhood lost to a mother’s schizophrenia, a family shattered in the wake of several suicides, and the mother mentioned previously, just to name a few. Don’t us crazies get enough bad press? I thought. Can’t we see the positive side of mental illness? Which begs the question: what on earth is the positive side of mental illness?
I’m not here to tell you that I have superpowers because of my illness. No, I have a brain that doesn’t work right, an arm that feels perpetually tender because of frequent medication injections, and an exaggerated startle response, to name a few. I realized I was cutting the question off before I was through asking it. What I really want to answer is: what is the positive side of talking about mental illness?
What the stories in Show Me All Your Scars do, and what I hope I am also accomplishing on this platform, is the reduction of the shame and secrecy associated with mental illness. It is terrible enough to suffer with thoughts of wanting to die, to be plagued by visions of demons no one else can see, or to despise oneself so much that self-induced starvation becomes routine. These are intense and heavy problems that do not need to be furthered by the addition of layers and layers of shame.
I was terrified to admit that I did not understand any of the main ideas presented in some introductory reading in my Text Criticism Theory class. I took my seat in the back and didn’t make eye contact with the professor. He’s going to call on me, I thought. He’s going to call on me, and I won’t know the answer, and then he’s going to stop class to yell at me for being stupid, and then… By the time class was halfway over, nearly everyone had admitted that they’d either not understood much of the reading or had just given up altogether. The atmosphere was relaxed, but we were all engaged.
Imagine what could happen if conversations surrounding mental health were the same. Instead of suffering in silence and isolation, fearing loss of friends, opportunities, and quality of life, what if people were not afraid to reach out–both to offer and request help? From personal experience, I can say that reaching out in times of great stress can seem impossible, which makes it all the more necessary to keep having those tough conversations until they’re not so tough. If you take anything away from this post, I hope it will be to check in on your loved ones, especially the people who seem to be handling everything so well. I hope it will be that you continue to talk about mental health when you need to, and when you don’t need to because you never know who might need to hear what you have to say. Most of all, I hope that if you are struggling, if you are on the precipice of your own personal void, that you will make space at least for the mere possibility of hope. No matter how bad the pain is, it does not last forever. This I know for sure.